Controversy in museums revisited: The role of museums in controversy #throwbackthursday

What are visitors’ expectations about museums and controversy? This post outlines some of the conclusions from the Exhibitions as Contested Sites Project discussed in Kelly, L. (2006). Museums as Sources of Information and Learning: the decision making process. In Witcomb, A. and Cameron, F. (Eds.) (2006) Contest and Contemporary Society: Redefining Museums in the 21st Century. Open Museum Journal. Vol 8, Accessed 22 April, 2014.

People strongly support the role of museums in providing information about important and controversial issues as long as they provide mechanisms for visitors to make comments about them. [The rise of social media and digital tools available in-gallery has gone a long way to make this possible]. Museums must recognise that visitors come with a range of strongly held views, and that some seek confirmation of these whereas others are more open to change. It is suggested that the museums act as mediators of information and knowledge for a range of users to access on their own terms; through their own choices; and within their own place and time. The challenge is to provide this for range of visitors within a contemporary context and with relevance to them and their lives.

Although participants in the focus groups [conducted as part of the research] were clear about the general educational role of museums, particularly in children’s learning, the results suggest that when presented with difficult and controversial issues the ways they see museums dealing with these needs serious reflection on the museums’ part about the capability and authority they have to do this:

I think the museum in many ways provides a taster and actually galvanises people to think they might want to explore this further. But for it to be there and try to represent a very broad view of something to a very wide spectrum of people [is] tremendously difficult. I have grave concerns about their ability, their capacity to do it (Sydney parent focus group participant, 30-49 years).

Some of the key questions that visitors raised that are worth further thought and reflection are issues about authority, whose voice/s are being represented and trust. Finally, in engaging audiences in ways that they like to learn through finding the right balance between being popular and being populist; being controversial and critical; between providing information and generating knowledge; and recognising the relationship between learning and entertainment need to be considered. The crucial role that leadership plays also needs further reflection. In conjunction with this, the willingness of museum management at all levels to embrace a truly visitor-focussed agenda must be questioned.

Overall, focus group respondents felt that people will make of their visit what they want to, choosing how they engage with a topic on their own terms, based on their own interests and prior experiences:

Museums are pretty much as challenging or non-challenging as you make them. You can walk through the War Memorial and look at the models, look at the submarines and walk out. Or you can take a tour and have someone tell you about it, or you can read about the stories, so it depends what you want from it. You can walk in and go “Gee”, or you can find out a lot of information. So it depends on what you’re looking for or what you want from it (Canberra focus group participant, 18-30 years).

This is the wonderful and unique nature of the museum experience: that it appeals to and engages a huge variety of people on so many levels. Museums are strongly viewed as being one of a wide range of information sources and as an important catalyst for learning, being accessed and actively used by many different kinds of people. Visitors recognise and value this role, and trust that museums will do this to the best of their ability.

[The paper also presents a range of data from across the sector and across audiences that underpin these findings. The whole paper is available online here]

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